Chapter 1: Description, Simulacrum, Provocation and Explicitness

As mentioned in a previous post, the second part of The Provoked Economy‘s first chapter dives into “For Distinctive Philosophical Problems” — a slightly pompous way to refer to the four notions (description, simulacrum, provocation and explicitness) that constitute the bulk of the contribution.

The section starts with the problem of description. A classic discussion in matters of performativity is on the famous disquisition proposed by John L. Austin in the William James Lectures that he gave at Harvard University in 1955. This is supposedly where a sharp distinction between constative and performative utterances took shape (i.e between situations in which the purpose is to describe an external state of affairs and situations in which the purpose is to institute this very state of affairs). But it is also where Austin himself objected to the robustness of the distinction (Lectures XI and XII, especially). To state something is an act, obviously, even if the purpose of the statement is just to institute a description. Descriptions add to the world and enter therefore the vast and all-encompassing realm of the performance. Any written text, any uttered speech supplies reality with more reality:

“Descriptions may differ in their style of reference. Here, I am afraid that there are more than two categories, and I believe Austin would agree. But they are all facts, things that happen, events. They may refer to something that is already there but they definitely add to reality, too. They provoke a new situation, a new ontological deal: one in which there is a description.” (p. 18)

But the point of the book is to not engage into a savant commentary of Austin. The purpose is to decide what to do with the fact that ordinary business is cluttered with descriptions that indeed add to the stuff of business. The chapter goes straight to finance. What is a financial derivative contract? It is a text. It is a document that describe conditional terms of payment. A description that is in turn described in other terms (e.g. risk assessment, potential price) in other texts, and forwarded to the market, which is in fact another pile of such documents. And these descriptions are obviously performative: they do things indeed, they constitute the market. The idea of the performative that is envisioned in the philosophy of financial writing proposed by Elie Ayache, for example, clearly takes in my view that path. And this performative condition clearly matches the fact that in his understanding of derivative finance the point is not to assess an underlying reality with a good or bad probabilistic science: his book is about “the end of probability” because it is about the end of the underlying reference.

Of course, putting things this way can precipitate the usual fear of the “virtual” in finance — “virtual” in the sense of “not quite real”, “not quite referring to an underlying reality”. Many scholars using the notion of virtuality in the consideration of economic matters seem to imply that. The point of The Provoked Economy is to counter that. This is where the chapter shifts attention to the problem of the simulacrum. I quickly acknowledge there the debt towards Gilles Deleuze, whose take on the simulacrum I present as a fine antidote against the view popularized by Jean Baudrillard. The simulacrum is not a hollow representation, but a medium of realization. And this applies to the myriad situations of ordinary business life in which reality is conveyed through the usual incantatory display:

“The problem of the simulacrum can be dealt with, in these situations, through a rather discouraging angle inspired by Baudrillard (i.e. the lack of truthful reality within the manipulation of symbols in business remediation) or through a more Deleuzian movement, which I would like to call openly pragmatist (i.e. the realization of business through the business simulacrum).” (p. 22)

I refer in this section, for example, to the work of Ellen Hertz on stock markets as simulacra: a crucial contribution to the understanding of the potentials of a Deleuzian view for an object that can easily favor a Baudrillardesque temptation. As Deleuze would put it, the simulacrum refers to the power of producing an effect. This leads in the chapter to the problem of provocation, an idea that a contemporary philosophical mind would readily link to Martin Heidegger (technique provokes what is, rather than unveiling it). I rely rather on Bruno Latour and his take on the experimental event (where he makes an explicit use of the notion of performance) — and on Javier Izquierdo an his philosophical anthropology of the hidden-camera prank:

“The hidden camera prank is a perfect model of the fundamental problem of provocation. It intensifies both the revelatory power of experimental orchestration and its generative thrill. It problematizes reality.” (p. 24)

The idea, which has been also explored elsewhere in relation to psychology, is to remark both the performative condition of economic interventions and its challenging character:

“Provoking, effecting, performing something is a way of exposing it to consideration. It is a way, in other words, of making something explicit. Here again we hit upon a well-known philosophical problem, because saying that something is being made explicit can very well mean that the thing was there already, implicit, existing in a latent, veiled, secret or potential form, for instance, in the form of an idea. On the other hand, one can claim that explicitness is a quite demanding state to be in, which affects what is at stake in a truly inventive fashion, with no particularly transcendental antecedent.” (p. 24)

In this first chapter, I rather side with the second interpretation of explicitness: it is not about a clarification of the prefigured, but about a provocation of the possible. In short, the quick exploration that this chapter offers through a glance at these four problems (description, simulacrum, provocation and explicitness) is meant to redefine the way one might want to consider the whole business of performativity in the rest of the book:

“We are quite far away from any idea of thoughts having effects on things, of theories having an impact on practices, of principles informing particulars, of representations influencing whatever it is that it is represented. We depart from the two-layer setting in which that would make sense. There is only one layer — a cracked, filamentous and turbulent layer, bumpy and shaggy, but quite horizontal.” (p. 26)

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One thought on “Chapter 1: Description, Simulacrum, Provocation and Explicitness

  1. […] True, this looks more like a proposal than a claim that scholars versed in the crafts of performativity would all naturally embrace. And this call from a more profound clarification! Which is what I try to provide in the next section of the first chapter (“Four Distinctive Philosophical Problems”). […]

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